Modern History of Buckfast Abbey
Following the death of Abbot Anscar, the community elected Fr. Bruno Fehrenbacher as its new abbot. Still by this time, most of the community were German born, though during the 1920s the Abbey had begun to attract new members from the British Isles. The harmony enjoyed by this increasingly international group of men contrasted sharply with the deteriorating situation in Europe as a whole. Shortly after his election, Abbot Bruno had to face the ordeal of guiding his community through another World War. Five of the English monks became Army Chaplains and one French lay-brother was mobilised by his government.
The older German members, who had all become naturalised British subjects, remained at Buckfast, where the Abbey took part in the British war effort, manning the local fire-fighters’ force, farming intensively and offering a refuge from the blitz for the staff and 100 pupils of St. Boniface College, Plymouth.
Although the building had been completed, there was still work to be done in the church. Here the influence of one of the younger British monks, Dom Charles Norris, began to be felt. Dom Charles trained at the Royal College of Art and used his talent throughout the church throughout his long lifetime.
Beginning with stained glass, he moved on to paint the lantern tower ceiling in egg-tempera in 1939 (one of his helpers remembers hearing the news of the outbreak of war while finishing some of the gold-leaf work). In 1948 Dom Charles designed the marble pavement in the choir and laid the floor in the Lady Chapel in 1958. In 1968 Dom Charles completed his most striking embellishment of the church the huge east window in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. This employs the technique known as dalles-de-verre in which ‘tiles’ of coloured glass are chipped into shape and laid, mosaic-fashion, in a matrix of resin. Following this work, windows were made at Buckfast for many churches throughout the country.
With a deterioration of his health, Abbot Bruno decided to resign from the leadership of the community and in 1957 Fr. Placid Hooper was elected to succeed him. He was thus the first English Abbot of Buckfast since the Reformation. As the 1960s began, Abbot Placid guided the community through a number of significant developments. First was the transfer of the community into the English Benedictine Congregation which enabled closer links to be developed with other monasteries in the British Isles. Next came the adaptation of religious life and the liturgy to contemporary needs which followed the Second Vatican Council.
Then in 1967, following some years of preparation, including a substantial building project and training for a number of the community, a preparatory school was opened at Buckfast. The school thrived for twenty-seven years until changes in educational trends (such as a move away from boarding) brought about its closure in 1994.
These developments continued during the Abbacy of Abbot David Charlesworth, who succeeded Abbot Leo in 1992. The late medieval south wing of the Guest Hall was restored using oak for the Abbey’s own woodlands and the medieval South Gate was converted into a residential centre for retreats, and for the Abbey’s guests. This was a fitting use for these buildings, since they were first built as an almshouse.
More recently, the community has continued to respond to the varied needs and aspirations of those who come to visit us. During the period of office of Fr. Sebastian Wolff as Prior Administrator and following the election of Abbot Philip Manahan in 2003, the former school buildings have been transformed to provide facilities for conferences, both of a religious and secular nature.
An account of the history of the monastery inevitably records the more tangible developments. It is appropriate for a site with such a long monastic history to give an account of the ways in which the buildings of recent times have sought to maintain continuity of aesthetic and purpose with their medieval antecedents.
Stability, continuity and response to the spiritual needs of the monks and those who visit them have been objectives of the Benedictines since their origins in Italy 1500 years ago. It is hoped that this account of the history of Buckfast gives an indication of the ways in which the community has tried to put those objectives into practise. ‘History’ tells us of changes and developments, but underlying all the developments at Buckfast is the enduring routine of prayer, work and study which is in essence unchanging. It is the occupation of the monks of Buckfast today, as it was of their forebears in the eleventh century and as it has been for all the monks who have lived here throughout the centuries in between.
The history of Buckfast Abbey is extraordinary as it is the only English medieval monastery to have been restored and used again for its original purpose.